Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aristotle's Poetics and Project Management

It can be a fatal mistake to impose a story arc on a project.

Aristotle's Poetics is a commentary on drama, in which he identified two story arcs that are sure-fire hits: Big Man Brought Down, and Small Man Lifted Up. These are the standard "Change in Fortune" story lines that we like.

Most movies in the category called "westerns" have elements of both. When we look at a movie like "Who Shot Liberty Valance", we see both changes in fortune intertwined in this story.

Movies, further, have a well-defined three-act structure with an opening that introduces characters, context and the dramatic situations. Within the first minutes of the film, there will be some kind of initiating incident that clarifies the overall conflict and sets up the character's goals. We can call this the narrative framework. Or a story design pattern.

Project Narrative

A "project" -- in principle -- has a narrative arc, much like a movie. Walker Royce (Project Management: A Unified Framework) breaks big waterfall-like projects into four acts (or "phases"):
  • Inception
  • Elaboration
  • Construction
  • Transition
Even if done in a spiral, instead of a waterfall, these are the acts in the narrative between the opening "Fade In:" and the closing credits.

In some cases, folks will try to impose this four-act structure on an otherwise Agile method. It's often a serious mistake to attempt to impose this convention of fiction on reality.

Things That Don't Exist

One of the most important parts of the narrative arc is "inception". Every story has a "beginning".

Projects, however, do not always have a clear beginning. They can have a "kick-off" meeting, but that's only a fictionalized beginning. Work began long before the kick-off meeting. Often, the kick-off is just a one small part of Inception.

Some projects will have a well-defined narrative structure. Projects labeled "strategic", however, do not ever have this structure. They can't.

For large projects, something happened before "inception"; this is a real part of the project. The fiction is that the project somehow begins with the inception phase. This narrative framework is simply wrong; the folks that helped plan and execute inception know this thing that filmmakers call "back story". This pre-inception stuff is a first-class part of the project, even though it's not an official part of the narrative framework.

Even if you have an elaborate governance process for projects, there's a lot that happens before the first governance tollgate. In really dysfunctional organizations, there can be a two-tiered inception, where there's a big project to gather enough information to justify the project governance meeting to justify the rest of the work. The "rest of the work" -- the real project -- starts with an "inception" effort that's a complete falsification. It has to ignore (or at best summarize) the stuff that happened prior to inception.

The Price of Ignorance

The Narrative Arc of a project requires us to collect things into an official Inception or story setup. It absolutely requires that we discard things that happened before inception.

Here's what happens.

Users say they want something. "Automated customer name resolution". Something that does an immediate one-click credit check on prospective B2B e-commerce customers.

In order to justify the project, we do some preliminary work. We talk to our vendors and discover that business names are always ambiguous, and there's no such thing as one-click resolution. So we write sensible requirements. Not the user's original dream.

We have a kick-off meeting for a quick, three-sprint project. We have one user story that involves two multi-step alternative scenarios. We have some refactoring in the first sprint, then we'll build one scenario for the most-common case, then the other scenario for some obscure special cases.

When we get ready for release, the customer asks about the one-click thing.

"What one-click thing?" we ask.

"I always understood that this would be one-click," the customer says.

"Do you recall the project governance meetings, the signed-off requirements and the kick-off meeting? You were there. We walked through the story and the scenarios. There can't be one-click."

Communicate More? Hardly

What can be done to "prevent" this? Essentially, nothing.

The standard project narrative framework -- start, work, finish -- or perhaps inception, elaboration, construction, transition -- doesn't actually exist.

Stuff happened "before" the start is part of the project. We can claim (or hope) that it doesn't exist, but it really does. We can claim that a project has a "start", but it doesn't. It sort of eases into being based on lots of preliminary conversations.

When the users asked for "one click", it was a result of several other conversations that happened before going to the business analyst to ask for the additional feature.

Indeed, the "one click" was a compromise (of sorts) reached between a bunch of non-IT people having a conversation prior to engaging the business analyst to start the process of starting the project. All of that back story really is part of the project, irrespective of the requirements of the project's standard narrative structure.

Bottom Line

Poetics don't apply to large, strategic projects. A project is a subtle and complex thing. There's no tidy narrative arc. Backstory matters; it can't be summarized out of existence with a kick-off slide show.

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